Take the latest skirmish Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been involved in. He made a casual remark questioning the “DNA of the Chief Minister of Bihar.” Even though he immediately clarified his statement as referring to the “DNA of democracy in Bihar,” the Chief Minister of that state responded by organizing a shabda wapas or “returning the word,” protest by sending five million DNA samples of the state’s citizens to Modi. The message was clear; “we all share the same DNA.” Since the Chief Minister belongs to what the Indian Government quaintly calls “Other Backward Castes,” the gesture really stung.
Now that is political theater for you.
I don’t have to tell you what the parallel here would be if American women decided to protest Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks that he “saw blood coming out of” Megan Kelly, the moderator of the first Republican presidential debate.
While American politicians’ theatrics are often laced with malevolence, Indian politicians seem to keep their message lighthearted and therefore more appealing.
Mahatma Gandhi was the master of political theater. In an age without the Internet or television, he saw the power of imagery. A classic example was when he showed up to meet the king at the Buckingham Palace in his dhoti. His theatrics were effective because they were genuine and laced with humor and kindness.
The Mahatma’s example has since been emulated by millions of Indian political activists from the highest to the lowest levels, so much so that there are now well-established cultural norms for political theater. Maidservants in my hometown of Nagpur, for example, organize rolling pin marches to demand workers’ rights. If a woman wants to take a righteous stance against a personal affront, the appropriate gesture, everyone knows, is to slap the perpetrator with a leather sandal. Decades ago, when the sister of a friend of mine entered the wedding canopy to slap the bridegroom with her chappal for jilting her, she became, not a fallen woman, but the town’s heroine.
In America, no such remedy exists for personal injury.
In America, when politicians want to distract attention from their poor policy positions, all they can do is evoke Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In India, when politicians want to change the conversation, they evoke ancient India, where every single technological advance that we have today, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and space ships, were allegedly already prevalent. To defend India’s nuclear tests in 1998, for example, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee claimed that ancient India had nuclear capability and that when Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the American atom bomb, quoted the Vedas when speaking of unleashing “the radiance of a thousand suns,” he was in fact attesting to this historical fact.
Not to be outdone, India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently claimed that the elephant-headed god Ganesh was proof that ancient Indian had expert plastic surgeons.
Compared to Indian leaders, American presidents and congress members come across as bland and colorless. In a country where marriage and children border on being mandatory, four of India’s long-running prime ministers have been single, idiosyncratic characters.
Nehru was a widower and an intellectual who was allegedly in love with Lady Mountbatten.
His daughter and successor Indira Gandhi was a single mother who was long separated from her husband and rumored to have romantic entanglements with cabinet members. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a confirmed bachelor who few people realized lived with the widow and children of his best friend. Narendra Modi, who claims to have taken the vow of celibacy as required of leaders of the Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, nevertheless has a wife he abandoned long ago.
If Modi wants to prove his machismo, he does not have to make hawkish comments about terrorists. All he has to do is lead a crowd of forty thousand in a yoga session at the India Gate. The equivalent would be if President Obama led the public in a jazz session on the capital mall. Actually, there is no American equivalent.
Anna Hazare, the crusader against government corruption, is yet another Indian leader who knows how to captivate the attention of the masses with his hunger strikes.
As if their characters are not colorful enough, Indian politicians dress colorfully as well. So much so that during a recent visit to India, President Obama expressed his envy of Modi’s colorful kurtas, wishing that he had one too.
In this American election season, when politicians are getting meaner, when, with the departure of Jon Stewart, we no longer have anyone to tell us what is funny, I look wistfully across the seas to the circus of Indian politics.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.